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The Longest Night: What it Means to Write through Grief

Leah Sumrall

In a good year, the winter solstice is as much about celebrating new life as it is honoring death. It is a season when light, so often a foregone conclusion, seems a little less certain, and it feels almost custom made for storytellers and writers. The world craves warmth and joy and we are the way they find it. Most Americans don’t really mark the day of solstice anymore, and yet we’re still drawn to light during winter: candles, decorations, fires burning in woodstoves and firepits, tales that warm our hearts. 

In a good year, maybe, these are enough to push back the dark, but this is not a good year.

This year, the solstice is heavy with grief. What seemed last year to be a predictable, if deeply flawed, world, tipped into chaos of every kind, tragedy and disaster adding to the collective weight under which we stagger through the encroaching night. Now, a million and a half bodies mark a season of loss so profound that nearly every place on earth has felt its frost.

It’s impossible to comprehend grief on such a vast scale, and so the darkness comes home to roost. Even those who count themselves lucky feel it all around. We mourn opportunities lost, friendships sundered, dreams deferred. Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, weddings, funerals, all left behind, uncelebrated.  There is no easing of the shadow, either; other, more perennial heartaches persist alongside these newer models, and each day, we steel ourselves against more sorrows we know will come. 

One might think that writers are uniquely poised toward resilience in times of loss. Writing is, indeed, one of the few solutions that psychology has offered to mourners: write your grief. This sounds simple enough, and if you’re anything like me, you’ve tried it. But we know even before we set pen to paper that it isn’t so simple.

My losses this year are admittedly quite ordinary in comparison to those of many others. My family’s world shrank, as everyone’s did, to the walls of an Alexandria townhouse that left me yearning for the country home we sold when we moved to pursue the MFA. The losses started small: my son’s second birthday party in mid-March, childcare and the relative freedom it gave me to write, our first vacation as a family of three in July. My grandmother, one of the first and most fanatical supporters of my writing, has been confined to her long-term memory care residence for nearly a year. The pandemic has crept steadily towards us, but I somehow managed to deny that we’d really lost anything. 

Then, in the midst of grading final papers and preparing for an unusually intimate Thanksgiving, I miscarried a much-wanted baby we’d told only my parents about. I thought I could be public and open about this too-taboo experience of loss, as so many of my brave female friends and role models have been, but it turned out that, short of telling a few friends, I couldn’t. I realized I don’t know how to grieve in front of others. 

I was still grappling with the shock of it all when, only a few weeks later, our beloved dog Oakley was struck with a vicious and fast-growing cancer she’d first defeated years ago. I knew I was lucky to be with her as she slipped away, feeling acutely how so many people in the world have been denied that simple mercy for those they love. 

We have put up decorations and a tree. We’ve lit candles and wrapped presents. Our countertop is stacked with tins of Christmas cookies. But even though we’re the kind of family that sings carols at the piano most nights, what echoes around our empty house after I put my son to bed often feels too dark and too cold to name. I find it lurking in the most unexpected places: Oakley’s orange tennis ball wedged under the bottom edge of my desk. An opened bag of decaf coffee I have to keep reshuffling in the pantry now that I’m back to drinking caffeine. Google autofill offering me “how to help a toddler understand death.” 

Grieving, therapists say, is like breathing. The more we fight it or pretend that we don’t need to do it, the more we are in danger of suffocating. Why, then, I wonder, are so many of us, myself included, fighting not to breathe? There are no ventilators for the writer’s soul; if we are to survive this time, if we are to live through it and write it for a world that desperately needs our words, we must freely allow ourselves to breathe. To grieve.

I wish that I could offer you a list of easy solutions, but I’m not a grief therapist. Far from it: I’m a writer, and there are times when I’m not sure that words could ever speak to what I’m feeling. In those moments, when my faith in this craft of ours falters, I feel darkness settle like a funeral pall over my head. Instead, what I have is this small lesson I have been sharing with my son: night always ends. Grief will ebb, eventually. The darkness will shrink back at the first blush of dawn, and spring will return. We will slowly trade our wool wrappings for summer linen, our candlelit vigils for days of lying in sun hot enough to burn, our tears for laughter and song.

What we do in the meantime, in the longest, darkest moments of our writerly lives, matters. I don’t think we should expect less of our writing; we should expect more. More of all the things that are most stubborn and broken and human and difficult. Perhaps if we can allow ourselves that, we might finally see that our imperfections are beautiful for their own sake, that they have always been what gives our work its life and its power. If we are to make art that matters, we have to keep breathing, even if it means allowing the weight of the year to settle into us, even if it means letting our minds drift from project to project to no project at all, even if it means that we lose a little of our polish and our poise and our productivity to the wilderness of grief. Remember: grief isn’t a problem to overcome. It’s a byproduct of having loved what we no longer have, and it might be our most precious and profoundly human quality.

Grieving, then, isn’t a concession to our humanity. It is at the very heart of our humanity. 

Today is the literal turning point of the year: the moment when, finally, the days will begin to lengthen. At first, those fractional slivers of extra light will go unnoticed. For months, the world will still feel far too dark and too cold. But someday soon, sooner than we dare hope, there will come a day for each of us when we recognize that we are emerging from darkness, when the warmth of the sun will welcome us back to a new kind of normal. What we bring with us — the work on the page and the work done deep inside — will burn far brighter than we ever could have imagined in the midst of this long night.

Leah Sumrall

Leah Sumrall, a speechwriter-turned-novelist from coastal Virginia, is phoebe’s Blog Editor. She is currently pursuing her MFA in Fiction at George Mason University. Catch her on twitter @leahsumrall.

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